Let’s be real: we all want to be in great shape. That desire is often enough to get you to join the gym and — if you’re really lucky — you’ll squeeze two or three sessions out of that aspiration alone.
But soon, reality kicks in and that ambition struggles to compete with your need for a kebab and a Netflix marathon.
The sad truth is that a desire to get in shape isn’t enough to create lasting change. However, there is one key thing you can do to change your life: harness the power of habit.
When you think “habits”, you may automatically prefix it with the word “bad”. But forming habits is actually one of the best ways to make a real, lasting change.
In his book Dictionary of Theories, Laws, and Concepts in Psychology, Jon E. Roeckelein defines habit as a “pattern of activity that has, through repetition, become fixed, automatic, and easily carried out.”
Habits, then, are simply activities we do on autopilot that have become part of our routine because, at one point in time, we consciously repeated them.
For example, you don’t have to think about brushing your teeth, setting your morning alarm or starting your car anymore, because through repetition they’ve become habitual.
Ultimately, the lack of thought required to carry out a habit makes it an invaluable asset for those times when your willpower fails you. Many psychologists have highlighted that willpower is a limited resource that we use up throughout the day, which is why so many of us feel we have no willpower left to hit the gym after a long day at work.
Forming habits helps free you from that problem by allowing some actions to bypass your willpower altogether.
How to form a fitness habit
Having a habit of going for a run or getting to the free weights on a regular basis is great, but first, you have to form that habit.
Charles Duhigg, author of the hugely successful book The Power of Habit, identifies a “habit loop” that determines how all habits form.
The habit loop looks like this:
Cue — Something in your environment that reminds you of the activity you need or want to do.
Routine — The activity itself.
Reward — Something positive we get after completing the routine.
The habit loop is particularly useful for helping you identify what needs to change to help you form a habit.
Here’s an example of a habit loop that you might want to repeat for your own fitness routine:
Cue — It’s 7pm on a Monday night, which is when you go the gym.
Routine — You go to the gym and work out.
Reward — You get an endorphin rush immediately afterwards, plus a hot shower and your favourite flavour of protein shake.
However, you can’t just wait for these habit loops to form; you need to create them for yourself by creating the right environment. Ensuring your routine takes place relies on your ability to both 1) create better cues and 2) provide yourself with better rewards.
Creating good cues
The first step in forming your fitness habits is ensuring your environment is filled with relevant cues to remind you to exercise.
Here are a few easy ways to do that:
- Set regular times to exercise — Have you ever got out of bed on a Monday morning and got ready for work only to realise it’s a bank holiday? Sure, it’s a great feeling, but it’s also an example of how powerful it can be to set regular days and times to do an activity, whether that’s getting ready for work or putting on your training gear. Try exercising at the same time of day on the same days each week. Within a few weeks these times and days themselves will act as mental cues to get you ready to workout.
- Buddy up — If there’s someone you see regularly, such as a colleague or a close friend, consider inviting them to go to the gym with you. If you go a few times together, seeing one another will be a reminder to go. Plus, you can support one another when willpower is flagging.
- Write down your goals — Your desire to achieve a specific goal can be powerful if you do enough to keep them at the front of your mind. Writing down your fitness goals on a regularly basis can act as a cue, both short term (perhaps you write your goals down just before a run) and long term (you write them at the beginning of the week and pin them up in your kitchen as a constant reminder).
Choosing the right rewards
Using rewards is vital if you want to create habits that you’ll repeat. Rewards take advantage of what in psychology is known as the “peak-end” rule, which dictates that people judge an experience based on how they felt at its most intense point (its peak) and at its end.
Good rewards ensure your routine ends on a high. That way, you’ll remember your exercise experience as positive on the whole and you’ll be more willing to repeat that activity.
Here’s how you can choose good rewards:
Make them healthy — This might sound obvious, but if you’re rewarding a great workout with a pack of cookies, you’re shooting yourself in the foot. Instead, why not treat yourself with a post-workout session in the sauna or the jacuzzi at your gym? If you’re consistent with this kind of reward, you’ll begin to associate exercise with feelings of elation and relaxation thanks to the peak-end rule. Plus, it’s really good for your body, helping reduce tension in your joints and relieve sore muscles.
Remind yourself that progress is its own reward — As much as a nice post-workout snack might incentivise you to get back on the treadmill, that alone won’t sustain you long-term. Get into the habit of measuring your progress, whether that’s in the calories you burned or the personal bests you got closer to breaking. Look at the big picture, too; think back to where you started to where you are now as an ego boost that will feel better than any kind of snack.
Choose long-term rewards that encourage habit-building — To make a habit last, you need rewards that go beyond a per-routine basis: you need to reward consistent repetition of a particular habit. That’s why at Fitness First, we created our Great Start Rewards scheme. Here’s how it works: if you visit 24 times in the first 12 weeks of your membership, we’ll give you your money back! Now that’s an incentive to build a positive habit.
With the right cues and great rewards, you can quickly form fitness habits that are built to last, so you can achieve your goals even when your willpower ebbs and flows.